The Documentary on OneBrendan Behan in Paris

As heard on Documentary On One

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This documentary reveals new audio archive and interview material on Brendan Behan’s time in Paris during the late 1940s and early ‘50s, including an interview with the writer that has never been previously broadcast. Behan reveals the influence Paris had on him as a writer and the opportunity it gave him to develop his work.

The significance of Behan’s years there are undervalued and overlooked. Paris gave Behan the confidence to produce experimental work that he dared not present in Ireland. Recognition as a writer and intellectual freedom stimulated the creativity that would lead to his later works such as Borstal Boy and The Quare Fellow. The documentary retraces Behan’s steps from impoverished writer living on his wits in post-war Paris to being celebrated in the city he described as “the most civilised in the world”.

Had it not been for the publisher Sindbad Vail, son of Peggy Guggenheim, one of Behan’s finest works may have been lost to literature. Vail became the first to publish Behan’s work internationally when he accepted his short story After the Wake for publication in 1950 in his Paris-based magazine Points, an important late-modernist periodical. Behan never presented the story in Ireland. Vail once said of Irish censorship, “we are lucky that their bigotry is our fortune”.

When Behan’s next short story Bridewell Revisited was refused by The Bell for publication in Ireland, Vail readily accepted it. The story became the opening pages of Borstal Boy.

Jacqueline Hélion, who was married to Vail at the time, recalls her husband discovering Behan’s work, “he was very impressed by Brendan, his writing was wonderful, it was so vivid and… strong”.  Along with writers such as James Baldwin, Behan was a regular visitor to the Vail home. Professor John Brannigan describes how Vail’s connection to “that great generation of modernist artists and writers” was important for Behan’s literary ambitions. “I think there’s a key turn in Behan’s work around 1950/51 and it’s all to do with Points magazine.”

The documentary is co-produced by Deirdre McMahon, whose father, Frank McMahon, won the 1970 Tony Award for his stage adaptation of Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy. It was the first Tony Award for an Irish play.

Produced by Deirdre McMahon and Tim Desmond.


(Main Photo by Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

© The Listener 2019

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